Monday, November 03, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #305: Pistolwhip by Kindt & Hall

There was a time when elaborate character names were high literature -- Mistress Quickly, Gragrind, the original Everyman. But modernism ran far away from anything ornamental, leaving such names only to more disreputable fields: romance, fantasy, thrillers, comics. Some of the waves of post-modernism have brought back some of that playfulness to High Literature, but, still, if you hear of a book with characters named Mitch Pistolwhip, the Human Pretzel, Charlie Minks, Captain January, and Lester Poindexter, you can be pretty sure it's a genre story of some kind.

But determining which kind of genre story can be more tricky, as with Matt Kindt and Jason Hall's twisty, inside-out noir radio drama/graphic novel Pistolwhip, from 2001. After a thorough reading and some thought, I'm pretty sure that the seeming omniscience of a certain schemer in this book is due only to pervasive surveillance and careful manipulation of events. And I'm similarly pretty sure that the book is only told in a complicated way, with results preceding causes.

But it's possible I'm wrong.

In an American city, some time when radio was still the major broadcast medium -- call it the thirties, for simplicity -- a web of events take place, involving all of the people listed above and more. Mitch is a would-be detective, or perhaps just a bellboy at the local hotel. "Mr. Vogel" is a suave European assassin, or maybe just a refugee singer and violin player. Charlie Minks has been trained since girlhood to be the perfect femme fatale, not that she had any choice or say in the matter. Those three meet in a shoot-out that's at the center of Pistolwhip, but their interactions are more complicated than that, told more complexly than that, and entirely orchestrated by the man called only the Human Pretzel, a former circus performer who turned to writing radio drama after the crippling accident that also killed his would-be girlfriend.

Oh, and all of this is also, in some way, the script that the Pretzel is writing for the Jack Peril radio serial -- perhaps he's manipulating events to match his script, perhaps he's writing it all up afterward as entertainment for his own amusement. But he's the spider at the center of this particular web, as we come to realize as Pistolwhip goes on, always circling those same few points.

This is not a simple book, and the storytelling is remarkably assured for what was the first full-length book by both creators. (There's no explanation of the breakdown of work in the book itself, but Kindt has been a solo writer-artist on everything else he's done, and Hall has written comics since for other artists. So, if I had to guess, either Kindt and Hall co-scripted Pistolwhip, or they worked Marvel-style, with Hall adding dialogue and final narration to Kindt's pencilled pages.) Kindt's art is even scratchier -- and in some places sketchier -- than his later work, but otherwise there's nothing that marks Pistolwhip as a particularly early book: it looks and feels a lot like the work Kindt has done since then, with an emphasis on hidden stories, surveillance, manipulators, complex storytelling and historical fiction. It's a fine story from two excellent creators, and some might be interested to learn that a new, expanded definitive edition will be coming early in 2015.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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